A 49ers defense that has been run over, run down and run off the field throughout the season grew even weaker before Sunday’s game when starting inside linebacker Gerald Hodges was deactivated for violating team rules.
That left the 49ers with just two inside linebackers in uniform, begging the question: What happens if one gets hurt?
The 49ers didn’t have to wait long for the answer when Nick Bellore went down because of an elbow injury in the first quarter, one of five key players to leave the game with an injury. The result wasn’t merely a 41-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons but a thrashing of historic proportions.
The Falcons’ 248 yards on the ground meant that the 49ers set a franchise record for rushing yards allowed in one season, 2,486, with two games remaining. San Francisco’s 1978 squad, which finished with two victories, held the previous record with 2,363 yards allowed.
Hodges, who had started the past seven contests, was ushered out of the 49ers’ locker room by director of player engagement Parys Haralson after the game and declined to speak to reporters. Coach Chip Kelly deflected questions about Hodges, saying only that it was a coach’s decision.
“I can’t expand on that anymore,” he said.
Hodges’ absence, plus Bellore’s injury, triggered a musical-chairs approach to the position that, just a few years earlier, was manned by All-pros in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Antoine Bethea, as well as outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks lined up at inside linebacker Sunday.
“I haven’t been in a game like this ever. We had to do a lot of mixing and matching,” Kelly said. “… It’s just the nature of the game; that’s the league. Everybody has the same rules. We all dress 46 (players).”
The Falcons set their own franchise record – for points in a season. Their total would have been higher if Michael Wilhoite, San Francisco’s lone inside linebacker, hadn’t forced a fumble at the San Francisco 1-yard line in the second quarter. Wilhoite found himself having to be both linebacker and on-field coach in helping players who hadn’t played the position since high school or earlier.
“I’m not going to stand here and lie and say it was easy,” Wilhoite said of the 49ers’ makeshift linebacking corps. “It was definitely something I’ve never had to deal with before being basically down to one linebacker.”
The 49ers went into the season celebrating their 70th anniversary and are in danger of emerging from it with several franchise records for futility. No other squad has lost 13 straight games and no other team has won fewer than two games.
Sunday’s game was marked by dropped passes on offense – “The drops are killing us,” Kelly said – and missed tackles on defense, including three on tailback Devonta Freeman’s nine-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
A year after the 49ers held him to 12 yards on 12 carries, Freeman scored three times Sunday and finished with 139 yards. All but three opposing tailbacks have reached 100 yards against the 49ers this season.
Somehow, the players left the game feeling good about their effort, which has been a theme in the 49ers’ postgame locker room this year.
“Everybody’s got enough energy and everybody’s trying to do the best of their abilities,” Sunseri said. “It just wasn’t our day.”
Said Wilhoite: “Regardless of the score, the one thing I will say is we all played hard, we all fought, we all continued to grind on defense out here. That speaks volumes. This whole year’s been tough, and it speaks volumes on the effort we all put in every day.”